Essays On War

Music for a soldier. Artem Chekh

Music for a soldier

Music turns soldiers into people and gives them a rather valuable desire to live. Live for the future, live to feel the present, and not forget the past. To remember and dream, to catch the power of the moment even sparingly, when it seems that most of the cognitive and sensual functions after all these difficult months have already been unlocked as rudimentary.

When the full-scale invasion started, my brain crossed out cognition and sensuality from the list of its needs. Instincts came to the forefront: numbness, fear, and depression maniacally haunted me in the first weeks. Listening to music seemed like blasphemy and sacrilege. Is it possible to listen to music during these wild and uncertain days? And most importantly, what is the point of it if tomorrow we all die on the battlefield or in torture camps? But as time passed, the mechanisms responsible for the balance of a full life began to recover, and music again took its importance, if not one of the top places in my life. I listen to music when I’m burning and aching from the inside, or I want to scream or close up into a wall of solitude.

Khudya serves with me. A former hippie from Kyiv’s Podil district, an exemplary family man who rides a bicycle and carries a French bulldog nicknamed Luna in his backpack in his civilian life. He also listens to music. One can hear whatever suits the occasion from his JBL pocket speaker: sometimes it’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” performed by Glenn Gould, other times it’s Portishead or some afrobeat. We arrange tea ceremonies and listen to his music on the bank of the river, in the forest, at the checkpoint, or on location. We have similar tastes, and it is pretty gratifying.

I keep something for myself, though. I listen to it exclusively on AirPods–something private and intimate. I listen to Lana Del Rey, Lola Marsh, Florence And The Machine, and Madeleine Peyrou. I love women, and I love their voices even more. I need to hear their hoarse, loud, ringing voices. When you spend all day in the sun or smell of smoke, when you come out of the shower, from a day shift, or from a sergeants‘ meeting, you need to listen to women.

A week and a half after the start of the full-scale invasion, we were stationed in Kyiv, digging trenches and setting up positions near the territory of the city TV tower. I was released for four hours to go home, do laundry and sit in silence, which was shamelessly broken by air alarm sirens. Then I realized that I could finally try to listen to music again. That day it was the Belgian band Zap Mama. Marie Daulne’s voice suddenly seemed a flashback from a peaceful life to me– irrelevant, distant, clumsy. That voice hurt and depressed me; the singer even seemed to deliberately grimace to annoy me, to prick and scratch at an open wound. I was lying in bed, waiting for the washing machine cycle to finish. Meanwhile, while looking at the taped-up windows, I imagined myself as a nineteen-year-old young man who, after an unsuccessful date, was taking the horribly slow trolleybus No. 3 from Palats Sportu station to his native Solomyanka. Or, to be more precise, to the street now bearing the name of the fallen hero Roman Ratushny…

After that strange experience, though, I did start listening to music all the time, especially when we went to the recently-liberated Kyiv region. Music became my main companion in that forest, a mandatory addition to a soldier’s arsenal, just like a personal weapon or a tourniquet. Female singers became the soundtrack of my depression, the hellish nimbus of an eternal struggle between good and evil, the deafening sound of my loneliness, and the shadow of a soldier’s frustration.

Leaving one location, I see a drunk fifty-year-old soldier listening to Vivaldi’s “Seasons.” There’s also my friend, a Syretska Street punk from the ’90s who goes by the callsign Geograf, listening to “Vova, mess them up!” on repeat. Kapral, a soldier from my unit, sings “Swallows, swallows” again. Some are listening to music on Radio Bayraktar, and the mortarman Kum listens to some wedding songs. Their music is foreign to me. I run away from it, hiding in the deepest crevices of my hiding places. I climb into my sleeping bag, cover my head, and immerse myself in the world where women’s singing, pure sex, love and beauty, and meditation reign amid the chaos of Russian rockets, mass burials, and executions.

The war swallowed us, and we also carry it inside us, but my body still does not digest this feeling. It rejects fear, pain, and bottomless grief. But this is my war. I was forced to be one of those in whom it has sprouted its black roots: in dugouts, abandoned factories, blood-stained mattresses, in the middle of the forest, on the edge of the field, in queues at the border, in the cells of torture chambers, in prison corridors, in bomb shelters, on sofas in front of televisions, and in offices in front of computer monitors. We are all close and strongly connected to each other by our common war. However, I have music that is mine, which leads me like a guide to a blind man through this strange experience. It leads to where I will become a new person, perhaps with a worldview as crooked as a mirror in an amusement park, aloof and cold, emotionally exhausted and confused, like Balayan’s Makarov, but anew. I will bring this old music back from the war, and it will stay with me until the end of my days.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan